John Fetterman: progressive senator perhaps not that progressive after all

There was a time when John Fetterman, the rough-and-ready Pennsylvania senator, was a budding star of the left.

Endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in his 2022 Democratic race, Fetterman had supported the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders for president in 2016. On the campaign trail, Fetterman said he would fight for an increased minimum wage, while he had previously suggested he wanted to see the implementation of universal healthcare.

But in recent months, Fetterman has come under attack from the left for his enthusiastic support for Israel and continued US funding to its war in Gaza. The criticism has come alongside praise from Republicans for Fetterman’s chiding of some Democrats over what he has called a “crisis at our border”.

The growing distance between Fetterman and the left of his party came to a head in December.

“I’m not a progressive, I’m just a regular Democrat,” Fetterman wrote on X that same month.

But although Fetterman did not openly embrace the progressive designation in his 2022 Senate race, people on X noticed an inconsistency: Fetterman’s post was flagged with readers’ context pointing to his previous posts where he described himself as a “progressive Democrat”.

In the years before he was elected, Fetterman offered enough evidence that he was to the left of the party to leave supporters feeling short-changed.

As lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania – he was elected in 2018 after running as a progressive – he pushed for clemency in some cases where people had been sentenced to life imprisonment. When he was mayor of Braddock, the town of 2,000 people in western Pennsylvania, he defied state law by marrying same-sex couples in his home.

That history, coupled with his frequent, fierce defenses of Pennsylvania’s election system on TV in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, inspired progressives to support him.

Fetterman never fully fitted all aspects of the progressive mantle. As a candidate in 2022, he spoke enthusiastically about his support for Israel, but his actions since the 7 October Hamas attacks, and Israel’s subsequent response, coupled with his adjustment on border issues, has brought political scrutiny.

It has prompted gossip, too. Fetterman’s wife, Gisele Fetterman, who became a prominent surrogate for him during the Senate campaign after Fetterman had a stroke, deleted her social media accounts in January.

Fetterman had spoken of his wife’s immigration story during his campaigns. Gisele Fetterman moved to the US when she was seven as an undocumented immigrant with her mother and brother, before acquiring a green card in 2004 and US citizenship in 2009.

That backstory prompted rebuke after Fetterman told the right-wing New York Post “there is a crisis” of migration.

“We have a crisis at our border, and it can’t be controversial that we should have a secure border,” he said last month.

Gisele Fetterman has since returned to social media, explaining her absence by saying she was “bored of it” – and the pair have posted pictures of themselves together, but the critics have not stopped.

The events of January 26 didn’t help, when Fetterman appeared to mock people who were protesting against the killing of 26,000 people in Gaza by waving a giant Israel flag at them. (The New York Post gleefully reported that Fetterman, a “progressive-hating Democrat”, “never misses an opportunity to mock” the left.)

There were always some distinctions between Fetterman and his more progressive colleagues, however.

While he was endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez in his Senate race, he said during the campaign that he would not be a member of the “Squad”, the group of progressive Democrats in Congress. When he was running for Senate, he was praised by the left for his statements on reforming the criminal justice system, but criticized for pledging his support for fracking.

He had given fair warning, too, about where he might stand on Israel.

“Whenever I’m in a situation to be called on to take up the cause of strengthening and enhancing the security of Israel or deepening our relationship between the United States and Israel, I’m going to lean in,” Fetterman told Jewish Insider in 2022.

Still, the apparent move away from being a perceived leftwing ally has plenty upset, and Fetterman is doing little to soothe his former supporters.

As people have watched with increasing horror as Israel has bombarded Gaza, Fetterman told Semafor in January that “Israel is really a beacon of the kind of values, the American values and progressive ideals, that you want to see”.

And as Republicans have called for severe restrictions on migrants crossing the border reform, Fetterman has defended working with the Republican party.

If Fetterman was once a progressive, it seems that he definitely is not any longer.

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